The Case for Including New Peace Linguistics into a Diversified TESOL Curriculum
One of the most recent published definitions of Peace
Linguistics (Curtis, 2018) states that it is “an area of Applied
Linguistics, based on systematic analyses of the ways in which language
is used to communicate and create conflict, and to communicate and
create peace. Peace Linguistics is interdisciplinary, drawing on fields
such as Peace Studies and Conflict Transformation, bringing those
together with fields such as Sociolinguistics and Critical Discourse
Analysis” (p. 12). Since that definition was published, it has become
clear that, although the idea of Peace Linguistics
(PL) has been around for decades (Crystal, 1999; Gomes de Matos, 2000),
few people have heard of it, and even fewer have taught or learned about
it until recently (Curtis, 2017).
In its earlier versions, PL was based on giving advice on using
language “to communicate peacefully” (Gomes de Matos, 2000, p. 341).
Although that was good advice and an important starting point, the ‘old’
PL did not involve the analysis of actual language used by speakers and
writers. Therefore, the New Peace Linguistics (NPL) has focused on
analyzing the language used by some of the most powerful people in the
world, as it is they who have the power to bring about peace or to start
wars. Two central tenets within NPL are, there can be
language without conflict, but there cannot be conflict without
language because all conflicts start and end with
language. If two world leaders hurl insults at each other,
then their ‘war of words’ could easily become a war of guns, missiles,
and bombs. And whenever a peaceful resolution is found, it is based on
the language of negotiation, mediation, and forgiveness, to name a few.
A tragic example of how an argument between two people can escalate and result in the death of many is the killing of dozens of people in January 2020 in Thailand. A soldier in the Thai army “killed his commanding officer, stole weapons from a military base, and went on to launch a devastating attack on civilians.” According to multiple, reliable news sources, the soldier “said that a property deal appeared to have given [him] a sense of grievance which led to his rampage”. Two people argue – many people die.
The First Peace Linguistics Course
In the Fall of 2016, I was invited to develop a course for
Brigham Young University-Hawai’i (BYU-H) on PL, which still appears to
be the only PL course of its kind, as far as we know, i.e., a
university-level, credit-bearing course on PL. We–BYU-H and I–carried
out extensive searches, looking to see if anyone, anywhere had taught
such a course before, but found nothing. The location is important as a
key part of the BYU-H’s vision is to: “assist individuals ... in their
efforts to influence the establishment of peace internationally,” and to
prepare “men and women with the intercultural and leadership skills
necessary to promote world peace”. The course was first offered at BYU-H
in January and February 2017, over eight weeks. The first and last
weeks were taught online, and the six main weeks were made up of six
hours of classes per week making a total of 36 hours of in-class,
face-of-face teaching, plus two weeks of online learning. As stated in
the original course syllabus, the course objectives were:
“By the end of this course, successful participants will be able to:
- demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the linguistics of language used to communicate for peaceful purposes.
- explore, examine and articulate the cultural and linguistic aspects of the languages of conflict and of peace.
- present and explain the use of poetic language, drawings, photographs, music, and other forms of text to illustrate different aspects of communicating for peaceful purposes.
- gather, analyze and present data on people’s perceptions of peace, in relation to language and culture.
- carry out a critical discourse analysis of a text which shows how language can be used to create peace or to create conflict” (Curtis, 2017, p. 30).
After careful consideration of a number of possible course
texts, we chose The Language of Peace: Communicating to Create
Harmony, by Rebecca Oxford (2013). Oxford sets out 6
principles of communicating peacefully: “Peace is a viable option” (p.
4); “We can and must declare peace instead of violence” (p. 10);
“Language has verbal and nonverbal forms” (p. 11); “Peace language
addresses multiple dimensions: Inner, Interpersonal, Intergroup,
International, Intercultural, and Ecological” (p. 12); Speakers of peace
language are ordinary people – yet also extraordinary” (p. 22); “The
language of peace is not always simple” (p. 23).” Although the same core
text was used in 2018 (Oxford, 2013), a number of changes were made
when the PL course was taught the second time, including a greater
balance between the linguistics content and the peace studies content.
The students’ assignments and assessments were also revised, with less
of an emphasis in 2018 than in 2017 on the remembering of facts and
figures, names and dates, definitions and descriptions.
From 2019 onwards, the PL course was taught on a regular
semester schedule, for three hours per week over approximately four
months, rather than being taught intensively, six hours per week, over
two months. That schedule gives the course participants more time to
explore the large volumes of material and to connect their PL course to
their majors. In both years (2017 and 2018), the class size was
approximately 20, and as a result of BYU-H’s highly multilingual,
multicultural student population, the two cohorts were from Australia,
Canada, Fiji, Hong Kong, Japan, Mainland China, Mongolia, the
Philippines, Samoa, Tahiti, the USA, and elsewhere. The two main majors
of the students were TESOL and Peacebuilding, as well as students from a
number of other departments, such as Communication Studies, Cultural
Anthropology, Elementary Education, Political Science, and Social Work.
A Short, Simple Activity
One activity I have done with the NPL course participants is to
give each of them a piece of paper, with a simple line drawing of a
person holding a rifle of some kind, and wearing a military uniform of
some kind. All of the pieces of paper have exactly the same drawing, but
half of them have the caption ‘Terrorist’ and the other half have the
caption ‘Freedom Fighter’. The students sit in pairs, and without
showing their partner their paper, they orally describe to each other
their drawings. A few things stand out each time we do this activity.
First is how negative the descriptive language is when the caption is
‘Terrorist’, for example, the students use words such as ‘evil’,
‘killer’ and even ‘murderer’. However, the language that is elicited
when the caption is ‘Freedom Fighter’ is far more neutral, such as
‘soldier’, and ‘warrior’, and sometimes even positive, with words like
‘hero’ being used. Another thing is the looks on the faces of the
students when they put down their pieces of paper and see that the
drawings are, in fact, identical. Many of the students are extremely
surprised to see how much the one- or two-word caption shaped their
thinking and how that thinking was reflected in their language choices.
To understand how
the language of some of the most powerful people in the world shapes our
world, NPL has focused on political leaders. For example, on 5 January
2020, Brad Parscale, the election campaign manager for US President
Donald Trump, said:
“The President’s war chest and grassroots army make his re-election
campaign an unstoppable juggernaut”. As well as “war chest” and “army”,
the President refers to the “war
room”, from which his re-election campaign will be run. Such
‘warist discourse’ is designed to present the 2020 US Presidential
elections as some sort of ‘battle’ between good-and-evil,
right-and-wrong, black-and-white. It is also worth noting Parscale’s use
of the adjectival modifier, “grassroots”, which is designed to give the
impression of some sort of ‘people’s uprising’ against perceived
injustices. And Parscale’s use of “unstoppable juggernaut”, which is
tautological, creates the image of some massive, irresistible force,
crushing everything in its path. Heightened awareness and in-depth
analyses of this kind of language may help us understand how people in
power utilize language to influence their audience in ways that could
either lead to a great deal of conflict or help bring about lasting
Curtis, A (2017). Back from the battlefield: Resurrecting peace
linguistics. TESL Reporter, 50 (1), 20-34. Retrieved from: http://ojs-dev.byuh.edu/index.php/Issue1/article/view/966/919
Curtis, A. (2018). Introducing and defining peace linguistics. The Word, 27(3), 11-13.
Retrieved from: http://www.hawaiitesol.wildapricot.org/resources/Documents/Word/2018%20May.pdf
Crystal, D. (1999). A dictionary of language
(2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of
Gomes de Matos, F. (2000). Harmonizing and humanizing political
discourse: The contribution of peace linguists. Peace and
Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 6(4),
Oxford, R. L. (2013). The language of peace:
Communicating to create harmony. Charlotte, NC: Information
From 2015 to 2016, Andy Curtis served as the
50th President of TESOL International
Association. He is the author of the first book to be published on Peace
Linguistics, titled The New Peace Linguistics and The Role
of Language in Conflict, which will be published in Spring
2020, by the University of Michigan Press.